Ed from the Gungahlin Rural Fire Brigade was overseas, ticking off bucket list items in Kabul when he came up with the idea of attempting to connect with a fire station over there. What followed next was fantastic.
General Amiri stared at me blankly. Mid-50’s perhaps, the General Director of Disaster Management for Kabul was dour, and with the sternness one might associate with a boarding school principal, or perhaps the perennially disappointed. His face displayed all the warmth of a Canberra bus stop in July, and I feared he had no idea why we were meeting. The idea had come to me 18 months earlier, just before I came to Kabul. As a member of the ACT Rural Fire Service I thought it’d be neat to try and connect my Gungahlin brigade with a Kabul counterpart. It had remained little more than a wistful ambition on the bottom of my Kabul bucket list until my final month at post when I drummed up the courage to ask the Security Adviser if it might be possible. To my surprise I didn’t get an immediate rejection and four days later an email came back with options for three local stations. The only down-side being that none of the stations wanted to meet me.
It turned out that protocol dictated I had to first meet with the head of Kabul’s Directorate for Disaster Management. Which brings me back to General Amiri’s office. After a slow and stilted opening as traditional formalities were translated in both directions (this process can often drag on for 30 minutes or more in Afghan meetings) Amiri turned out to be much friendlier than the initial taciturn impression. He mused about his own background with the fire service, the logistical and cultural challenges for emergency services in a war torn country and his hopes for a future more professional and reliable service in which Afghans could trust. He plied me with several gallons of chai tea, repeatedly encouraged me to eat ‘just one more’ date/nut/raisin and eventually, after I mused that my security minders was might shortly break down the door and drag me out, he stood up and with a hint of a smile said ‘let’s go see a fire station’.
After a short meander through the greying snow, we turned the corner of a large warehouse to find a formation of 40 firefighters standing to attention. The General paraded up and down and barked orders in Dari and the firefighters sprinted off to five waiting trucks to demonstrate a departure drill. It was an impressive showcase as each of vehicles rapidly overflowed with eager personnel and sped away, sirens blaring and beacons flashing, to an imaginary fire. A gentle tap on the shoulder informed me it was time to go, so a quick photo and an exchange of gifts, mine a friendship plaque on behalf of the Gungahlin brigade, his a beautiful Afghan coat (which came with rather elaborate instructions on correct folding technique), and we departed. In a country where first responders are increasingly targeted by insurgents it was humbling to witness the professionalism and commitment of those, in one of the most challenging environments, willing to risk their lives for the benefit of others and the idea of a more professional and reliable public service in which Afghans can trust.